Our company manages about 1,100 privately owned vacation rental properties along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. So when all the bridges to the Outer Banks were closed off to visitors in mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it took an unfathomable toll on our business.
It was unquestionably the right decision from a public health and safety perspective, but many tourism industry businesses like ours were left treading water.
We never expected to have to navigate a two-and-a-half-month complete shutdown of our revenue-generating operations, and we ended up refunding millions of dollars in guest deposits during that time. My brother and I faced the very sad possibility that we may have to shutter our 42-year-old family-owned business for good.
Thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, we were able to keep our entire staff on payroll throughout the shutdown and weather the worst storm we’ve ever faced. But as we dealt with the financial challenges during that time, we also had to confront a much larger, longer-term challenge: How do we keep guests feeling safe and good about renting vacation property from us? How can we adapt and modernize our business to address this “new normal” in the travel industry while also maintaining the unmatched customer service we’re known for?
Soon after the bridges closed, we went into crisis-management mode. Our 150 employees were rightly worried about the fate of the company and whether or not the pandemic would cost them their jobs. The property owners we partner with wanted to know how we were dealing with all of the canceled bookings and how our plans would affect them.
We began by holding weekly virtual town hall meetings with our employees and our property owner partners. We tried to be as brutally honest as possible and always told them what we knew and what we didn’t know.
We also communicated regularly with our past guests using email and social media. We created videos and articles letting them know about our plans for reopening and how we were changing our business practices to keep them safe during the pandemic.
Keeping the lines of communication open with all our stakeholders and being fully transparent was probably the most important thing we did to maintain trust in our business during the closure.
Using technology to reinvent our operations
When the bridges to the Outer Banks finally reopened in late May, new reservations started pouring in. We average 3,000 phone calls in a typical summer week, and in that first week, we received more than 57,000 calls. We currently have the best summer in terms of bookings that we’ve had in our company’s history. (The Outer Banks has naturally benefitted from being a destination where people in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states can take a beach vacation without having to get on a plane.)
Beyond basic steps like requiring our employees to wear masks and comply with government requirements, we’ve also deployed technology to help us better address the needs and expectations of today’s travelers. In the 100 days since the pandemic took hold, I’d say we’ve innovated in ways that would otherwise have taken 10 years.
Here are some of the steps we’ve taken:
- We’re using virtual communications more than ever to communicate with our guests. Pre-pandemic, we were very focused on creating an exceptional face-to-face customer experience at our front desks. But now we keep a barebone staff at those desks (mostly for emergencies) and use a combination of phone, video calling and text messaging for the vast majority of guest communications—and we have re-allocated 60 to 70 staff who in the past focused on helping guests in person to now handling digital communications from their home. If a guest has a question about how to, say, operate their hot tub, a maintenance person can hop on a video call with them using FaceTime or Google Hangouts.
- We use text messaging more than ever before for handling guest communications—such as asking guests how their stay is going or answering questions. We’ve found that 92% of the texts we send get opened, compared to just 12% of emails. We use a tool called Avochato to help manage those text-based conversations with our guests.
- We recently built our first artificial intelligence-driven guest experience chatbot—which has helped us deal with the huge uptick in inquiries we’ve received in recent months. If a guest comes to our website and types “Is my house ready for check-in?” into the chatbot, they can get a quick answer without needing to call us directly. And the AI chatbot gets smarter over time. I expect that in about three years, 50% of our guest interactions will be automated.
- We’ve added keyless entry to far more of our properties. Before the pandemic, about half of them had it—now about 90% do.
We’ve started using business intelligence and analytics software to help us predict supply and demand of the properties and make both pricing and advertising decisions. For example, we know when to pull online ads based on vacancies—so we’re not spending money on advertising when we don’t have to be. This software has been instrumental to us during the pandemic and especially now that bookings are surging again.
While the required closure and new realities amid the pandemic presented big hurdles for our business, they’ve motivated us to innovate and make changes that inevitably will help us to continue providing unmatched customer service. (And as a Spectrum Enterprise customer, very high-speed internet is helping us deploy all of this new technology.)
For a business that’s long relied on providing guests with exceptional in-person service, moving so many of our customer interactions over to technology has been frankly terrifying. But we’re already seeing the payoff: Our guests love the convenience and speed that digital communications provide them—and it’s helping our company more effectively and efficiently provide the great service and Southern hospitality that we’re known for.
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